Why you need a physicist on staff
November 1, 2019 4:44 AM   Subscribe

Electric utility New Brunswick Power paid Florida company Joi Scientific CAD$13 million to license a technology that claims it can generate hydrogen gas from sea water for a net 200 per cent electrical efficiency. But this past summer, after the roll-out date for a demonstration unit had been pushed back two years to 2020, Joi Scientific CEO Traver Kennedy revealed to shareholders that Joi had been calculating power incorrectly, and the technology in fact has "poor system efficiencies". They were, of course, warned that "Joi's claim that it can get more energy out of its secret hydrogen process than it puts in — a process the company itself has called "magic" — is too good to be true."
posted by heatherlogan (114 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
New Brunswick citizen here. Yes, we are embarrassed. As we should be.
posted by Mogur at 4:51 AM on November 1 [20 favorites]


Great power in a missed decimal point.

(would totally have tenure at an ivy league except for 0.001 not 0.01 on that one big test ;-)
posted by sammyo at 4:56 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Oh and those pesky rules of algebra, didja know those +'s and -'s matter!
posted by sammyo at 4:57 AM on November 1


I don’t understand how there are any shareholders to begin with.
posted by aubilenon at 5:18 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


claims it can generate hydrogen gas from sea water for a net 200 per cent electrical efficiency

Never mind the algebraic errors; how can it be, in 2019, that there are people in consequential decision-making roles who are so utterly detached from physical reality that "net 200 percent efficiency" didn't instantly cause extreme skepticism?

(looks around at 2019)

Never mind.
posted by flabdablet at 5:18 AM on November 1 [55 favorites]




I don’t understand how there are any shareholders to begin with.
Rounding error.
posted by krisjohn at 5:30 AM on November 1 [8 favorites]


Also, levelling error.
posted by notyou at 5:32 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


This is actually a very clever way to end a grift! It's not fraud if you can convincingly pretend to be dumb enough to believe it yourself.
posted by atrazine at 5:34 AM on November 1 [40 favorites]


So I guess this Joi did not spark?
posted by zombieflanders at 5:35 AM on November 1 [52 favorites]


Especially sad because NB really can't afford this kind of loss.

To read that Joi had been using some of the Meyer patents — huge amongst free energy conspiracy people — shows that someone, somewhere didn't do even tyre kicking on this one.
posted by scruss at 5:35 AM on November 1 [8 favorites]


What's New Brunswick got in wastewater treatment plants? If they're keen to pay for boondoggles, maybe I could persuade them to pay for one I hold shares in.
posted by flabdablet at 5:36 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Their patents literally cited a perpetual motion scam.
posted by kyrademon at 5:38 AM on November 1 [10 favorites]


I don’t understand how there are any shareholders to begin with.

Fraudulent companies built around perpetual motion machines or cancer cures are a favorite vehicle for pump-and-dump stock scams.

The remaining shareholders were likely all victims.
posted by xthlc at 5:46 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


This is actually a very clever way to end a grift! It's not fraud if you can convincingly pretend to be dumb enough to believe it yourself.

...and this is why these sorts of miracle technology companies are so popular with fraudsters.

It's *very hard* to prove in court that you knew ahead of time the technology was impossible. If it's sufficiently esoteric it's also hard to prove you could have done sufficient due diligence. Stupid isn't illegal, and the government is reluctant to "stifle innovation".
posted by xthlc at 5:50 AM on November 1 [5 favorites]


Stupid isn't illegal

The older I get, the more convinced I become that stupid around the boardroom table ought to be.
posted by flabdablet at 5:53 AM on November 1 [15 favorites]


Should have put some sigils on it
posted by thelonius at 5:57 AM on November 1 [4 favorites]


Stupid isn't illegal, and the government is reluctant to "stifle innovation".

Clearly we just haven't hit sufficient levels of stupidity.

On the bright side, the US Patent Office does refuse to issue patents for perpetual motion machines of any sort, absent a working prototype demonstrated to a patent officer.

Of course, this raises the question of why no one at New Brunswick Power knew that perpetual motion machines are literally the only kind of snake oil so widely known to be impossible that you can't legally patent them.
posted by Mayor West at 5:58 AM on November 1 [9 favorites]


Have lived in New Brunswick. I'm not surprised, just disappointed.
posted by LegallyBread at 6:10 AM on November 1 [6 favorites]


They were literally sold a perpetual motion machine and nobody raised a red flag? An electric utility didn't bother to run this thing by it's engineers? The entire top management needs to be cleared out. This is so much obvious stupid I'm wondering if there wasn't some kind of kickback scheme involved. Did any of those managers suddenly show up driving a Maserati?
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:32 AM on November 1 [24 favorites]


Just for scale, CAD$13 million will buy you a physicist-century of full-time tenured university professor salary.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:33 AM on November 1 [20 favorites]


CBC reports that Joi's offices are at the Space Life Sciences Lab. That surprised me, because I thought the Space Life Sciences Lab was part of Kennedy Space Center, and I couldn't imagine this lunacy happening at KSC.

But, sure enough, Joi's website advertises their address as being in the Space Life Sciences Lab, Kennedy Space Center. "No," I thought. "Nooooooo. Tell me these people have nothing to do with NASA."

And then I discovered that the Space Life Sciences Lab, in spite of having the prestigious-looking KSC address, is actually a project of Space Florida, an economic development organization created by the state of Florida. Space Florida leases part of KSC.

As far as I can tell, Joi Scientific has nothing to do with NASA, other than being headquartered in a building on a land leased from KSC by an organization created by Florida's state government.

But, according to Space Florida's published financial reports, Space Florida — a "Component Unit Of The State Of Florida" — loaned Joi Scientific $74,480 on March 1, 2017.

So, New Brunswick isn't alone in this, is I guess what I'm saying. It looks like Space Florida's records fall under Florida's open records laws, so perhaps there's a story to be found there for some enterprising journalist.
posted by compartment at 6:42 AM on November 1 [22 favorites]


This is actually a very clever way to end a grift! It's not fraud if you can convincingly pretend to be dumb enough to believe it yourself.

Yeah, IMO this is just money laundering. And if money is speech politically (at least in the US) then I'm sure there's a legal logic that will let us lock up fiduciaries.

Of course that's only in the timeline where it's not just oligarchical ratfucking all the way down.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:43 AM on November 1 [3 favorites]


"Money that's spent is money that's spent. I'm looking at where we're going from here...”
- Utility CFO Darren Murphy

Ok
posted by parm=serial at 6:44 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


It's *very hard* to prove in court that you knew ahead of time the technology was impossible. If it's sufficiently esoteric it's also hard to prove you could have done sufficient due diligence. Stupid isn't illegal, and the government is reluctant to "stifle innovation".
I have an otherwise-intelligent friend who makes his living fixing various pieces of technology who seems to believe in some kind of mystic-woo hydrogen-generating over-unity claptrap. I explained to him that I didn't even have to bother figuring out how the scam worked--I know it's a scam because of conservation of energy.

He said something to the effect of "well, scientists don't know everything and anyway Big Fuel would hide the truth!" I countered with Instant Nobel Prize and so on back and forth before I finally realized that our basic tenets of thought are incompatible. I'm a Science Guy and he's a Wishful Thinking Guy. It doesn't prevent him from understanding things well enough to fix them (way better than I could, in fact), but to do so he has no need for the general laws we've discovered because they don't help find a corroded ground connection on someone's Volvo.

Unfortunately, it makes him (and groups of folks like him) vulnerable to scamsters who--as the quote notes--only need convince a court that they *might be* a WTG to escape any consequences. Nice suits, though.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:48 AM on November 1 [5 favorites]


"What's New Brunswick got in wastewater treatment plants? If they're keen to pay for boondoggles, maybe I could persuade them to pay for one I hold shares in."

Flabdablet I don't know your background but I am (also?) in the WW industry and my head immediately went to all the fringe bullshit that's out there: magic aeration efficiencies, magic nutrients, magic antifouling properties etc. The number of times I have had clients come and say "Your design quote is 100k but these guys say I just need to throw a handful of these pellets into the tank..." Gah. The good news is, they often come back to us after they discover their error.
posted by hearthpig at 7:00 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


Maybe I'm just stupider than everyone else, but it didn't seem immediately obvious to me that it was a scam.

There is a process by which I input a tiny bit of energy and make my house very hot: It's called making a fire. The chemical energy of the wood is released.

That is what they claimed to be doing: "Joi's video calls it a chemical process... Kennedy will only say that Joi uses the 'the latent energy' in seawater..."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:01 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


I have an otherwise-intelligent friend who makes his living fixing various pieces of technology who seems to believe in some kind of mystic-woo hydrogen-generating over-unity claptrap.

Years ago I had a boss like this. He was an electrical engineer. An effective, gets-shit-done one. The founder of a successful small business. He had more science and engineering education than I did. It wasn't until I'd known him for some years that he surprised me with enthusiasm for some kind of automotive hydrogen generator gadget. (Why does this style of woo so often center on automobiles?)

A mutual colleague who had known him much longer told me he had always been enthusiastic about perpetual motion, free-energy schemes, and "that kind of crap."

I still can't wrap my head around it. "Science Guy" vs. "Wishful Thinking Guy" is an interesting point of view, but I don't think it fits in my case.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:01 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


WE OBEY THE LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS IN THIS HOUSE!
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:04 AM on November 1 [26 favorites]


Why you need a physicist on staff

Do you really need a physicist to know Newton's laws?
posted by octothorpe at 7:05 AM on November 1


I think one of the key things to remember is like doctors and nurses, engineers are science-adjacent but not actually scientists, per se, so often have surprisingly unscientific beliefs.

But then I think about Linus Pauling, and that Cornell Astronomer who thought microbes make petrochemicals, so who the fuck knows.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:06 AM on November 1 [4 favorites]


...it didn't seem immediately obvious to me that it was a scam.
There is a process by which I input a tiny bit of energy and make my house very hot: It's called making a fire. The chemical energy of the wood is released.


The difference here is that they claim to be able to generate electricity using a closed cycle of seawater -> hydrogen + oxygen (+ salt presumably) -> water (+ salt again).
posted by heatherlogan at 7:06 AM on November 1 [5 favorites]


Do you really need a physicist to know Newton's laws?

Knowing Newton's laws (and making a few minor math errors or inconsistent assumptions) is a great way to fool yourself into thinking you've discovered a free-energy device or a reactionless drive. Apparently you do need a physicist to think first in terms of conservation of energy or conservation of momentum and recognize these boondoggles before the proponents can drag them down the rabbit-hole of technical sleight-of-hand.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:10 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


There is a process by which I input a tiny bit of energy and make my house very hot: It's called making a fire. The chemical energy of the wood is released.
Right, but with wood you are turning hydrocarbons plus oxygen into carbon dioxide and water. Water is an end product of combustion.

The swindle here was a scheme to start with water, separate the hydrogen from the oxygen, and then use the hydrogen as fuel --- fuel which would combust with oxygen to produce water. It's like borrowing money from yourself.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:11 AM on November 1 [7 favorites]


> It's like borrowing money from yourself.

Trump did that, and look where it got him. /s

Anyway, more seriously, you've got a better chance of disproving quantum mechanics or general relativity than breaking the second law of thermodynamics.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:17 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Slightly off topic PSA: Remember kids, the chemical energy stored in wood came from the sun.
posted by bdc34 at 7:19 AM on November 1 [12 favorites]


you've got a better chance of disproving quantum mechanics or general relativity than breaking the second law of thermodynamics.

Forget the second law of thermodynamics; they're claiming to be able to break the first law of thermodynamics! Except that they also claim they're not violating any physical laws.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:19 AM on November 1 [6 favorites]


I. You can't win.

II. You can't break even.

III. You can't quit.
posted by hearthpig at 7:24 AM on November 1 [19 favorites]


that Cornell Astronomer who thought microbes make petrochemicals

Zooplankton and algae did make petrochemicals… eventually. Pretty sure you're thinking of Thomas Gold's abiogenic petroleum formation theories, which involved hydrocarbons being sweated out of the core of the Earth- any biological markers in oil were supposedly due to extremophile bacteria feeding on the hydrocarbons.
posted by zamboni at 7:26 AM on November 1 [7 favorites]


Forget the second law of thermodynamics; they're claiming to be able to break the first law of thermodynamics!

Now I want an example of someone claming to break the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics
posted by thelonius at 7:27 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


NB resident here. NB Power has always been kind of an embarrassment but this is just beyond the pale.

The CEO of NB Power is also on Joi's board of directors. I feel like I've been robbed and there's nothing I can do about it.
posted by one of these days at 7:34 AM on November 1 [20 favorites]


There is a process by which I input a tiny bit of energy and make my house very hot: It's called making a fire. The chemical energy of the wood is released.

That is what they claimed to be doing: "Joi's video calls it a chemical process... Kennedy will only say that Joi uses the 'the latent energy' in seawater..."


Indeed. The issue here is that un-burnt wood has more chemical energy than the mix of CO2, ash, and water vapour that comes out when you burn it. The difference in that chemical energy comes out as heat.

Water has less chemical energy than hydrogen and oxygen so you can never get energy from running the process in that direction.

It would be like trying to heat your house using ash and CO2 as the fuel.
posted by atrazine at 7:36 AM on November 1 [7 favorites]


The CEO of NB Power is also on Joi's board of directors.

That doesn't sound like a conflict of interest.
posted by Slothrup at 7:38 AM on November 1 [14 favorites]


Truly - not sure if he is any more, but at the time of investment he used $13 million dollars of taxpayer money to buy magic beans from a company he had personal stake in. And now he's claiming he didn't know the (very basic, high-school level) science wouldn't work out? It's actually kind of outrageous that this was allowed to happen with a public utility.

I have a vain hope that at the very least some auditors can make Gaetan Thomas' life uncomfortable for a while but of course he's got too much money to be held to task.

I have seen this before as well - a few years ago the CEO of my company was on the board of directors of a third-party company which we were interested in subcontracting. He was removed after just a few short months when OUR board of directors found out about his conflict of interest, but he still made more money in his stint as CEO than I do in a year. Engineers were forced to waste our labour for his scam, knowing that it wouldn't work out.

Ugh, what a disaster. I'm definitely bowing out of this thread to go... write some letters, or something. I don't know.
posted by one of these days at 8:00 AM on November 1 [9 favorites]


Have lived in New Brunswick. I'm not surprised, just disappointed.

Ditto, except that it wasn't an Irving company.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:03 AM on November 1 [7 favorites]


I'm interested in Dr. William Cook, P.Eng., the UNB professor who apparently did a site visit. He might yet wind up educating engineering students across Canada, just not in chemical engineering, but rather as a case study in the professional conduct and ethics course.

Willy Cook, who teaches chemical engineering at the University of New Brunswick, visited Joi's Florida lab and said he was impressed by what he saw, but "whether that substantiates the claims that they're getting a two-for-one, I can't go into that. "From what I've seen I do not believe Joi Scientific is breaking any laws of thermodynamics."
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:11 AM on November 1 [8 favorites]


~The CEO of NB Power is also on Joi's board of directors.
~That doesn't sound like a conflict of interest.


Due diligence.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:13 AM on November 1


Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.

The thing is, they often like to think of themselves as basically hands on scientists but they aren't. They spend their day applying science basically by learning a set of rules and sticking to those rules. They don't really get into the real research end of things.

But since they're science adjacent they often make the mistake of imagining that they're science.

We see it with climate change too.

Since they do their work by, when you get down to it, just taking people's word for things and applying the rules those people wrote up they find people who seem knowledgeable and give nice simple ideas and latch onto those. The fake stuff has easy to follow steps that is like catnip to a certain sort of engineering mindset, they can follow the logic and can't see anything obviously wrong with it, so they conclude that the idea must be true.
posted by sotonohito at 8:19 AM on November 1 [19 favorites]


Hey, now, it could've been cold fusion creating the extra power. You'd only need a tiny bit of it to create excess power, amiright?
posted by clawsoon at 8:42 AM on November 1


Putting aside whether it's a scam, it definitely isn't a solid business bet and that should be obvious even if you don't know the science because it's a startup. On that basis alone you have to question what the utility was doing. Did they have this money to comfortably lose on R&D? Probably not, so why did they make the investment? You can tell by the CFO's comment "Money that's spent is money that's spent. I'm looking at where we're going from here" that they are probably not savvy startup investors. If they didn't realize that they were buying this in the sense that you buy something from kickstarter rather than the grocery store, they were in way over their head or self-dealing somehow.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:46 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


From what I've seen I do not believe Joi Scientific is breaking any laws of thermodynamics.
And the fraud lies in the fact that they did not break any laws of thermodynamics.
posted by adamrice at 8:46 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but did they manage to turn 52 cards into 53?
posted by signal at 9:14 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


"If you speak to any chemist worth their salt, they'll know that hydrogen from seawater is going to be very, very difficult," the former employee said.
I see what he did there.
posted by biogeo at 9:16 AM on November 1 [4 favorites]


Taking back our resources – A letter from New Brunswick’s future #7. Interested what people think of this.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:37 AM on November 1


Further to Feloniousmonk's excellent comment above, I point back again to the municipal sphere of water and wastewater treatment; generally these groups can't be convinced to buy into technology that's 10 years proven because it's not what's written into the spec index. I can only assume the same is true in general for provincial infrastructure, my limited exposure to Fed work (shudder) has been the same. So yeah, the fact that they even touched this with a borrowed 3 meter pole seems weirder and weirder the more I think about it.
posted by hearthpig at 9:46 AM on November 1 [3 favorites]




Willy Cook, who teaches chemical engineering at the University of New Brunswick, visited Joi's Florida lab and said he was impressed by what he saw, but "whether that substantiates the claims that they're getting a two-for-one, I can't go into that. "From what I've seen I do not believe Joi Scientific is breaking any laws of thermodynamics."


I can agree with that last statement without knowing anything further about the case.
posted by ocschwar at 10:02 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Ah, that's why my NB Power bill just went from $300 a month to $380. I didn't think I'd actually ever find out. But somehow I'm not surprised it's either mind-boggling stupidity or simply graft. I already knew that.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:03 AM on November 1 [2 favorites]


Interested what people think of this

I think good engineering happens under hard design constraints, and I think imposing hard constraints on the engineering of our energy collection and distribution networks that say (a) we're going to phase out systems that burn any fuel we didn't make ourselves and (b) we're not going to build any new energy collection or distribution systems that cause a net loss of biodiversity, either under normal operating conditions or via any predictable failure mode, will lead to some pretty bloody good engineering.

I think tapping into ongoing energy flows, rather than drawing down existing energy stores, is getting cheaper every year and that the harder we push down that road the faster it will get cheaper and the more beneficial economic activity it will generate. And I think that people who can't see that this is so, or who don't understand that pushing down that road as hard as we can is vital and necessary work, have got their heads firmly encased in their recta.

I think a hydrogen fuel cycle is a potentially very interesting complement to batteries, and that constraint-compatible ways to make hydrogen at the lowest achievable energy cost are a good thing. But I think people who claim we can make it from water at negative energy cost have got their heads so far up their recta that they've gone up there twice.
posted by flabdablet at 10:11 AM on November 1 [5 favorites]


It's unpossible to put rich guys in jail. I mean, imagine. It's dominos all the way down.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:35 AM on November 1 [1 favorite]


@ sotonohito: Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.

This. So much. Also, just because you are using advanced math does not mean what you are doing is Science( I am using it in the sense of Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc which have laws that are not dependent on human behavior but are universal). I am looking at you Economics.

Also, the 200 percent efficiency violates the First Law, without even getting into the Second Law. Mindboggling.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:27 AM on November 1 [3 favorites]


Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.

Maybe, but as a chemical engineer, I would at least expect the *200% efficiency* bit to ring alarm bells for most engineers. There's also a bit more weird stuff in the patents that I glanced at, they seem to be claiming that they can produce more or less pure hydrogen with a small amount of CO2, which has me wondering where the rest of the oxygen is, and where is the carbon coming from. (Possibly the graphite anode? In which case, has the energy from that reaction been taken into account somewhere?)

Plus statements like this "Traver Kennedy, CEO of Joi Scientific, told CBC News said that "if you're only going to count the electricity, it would certainly appear" to violate those laws." make me immediately ask, what else should be being counted?
posted by scorbet at 11:55 AM on November 1 [4 favorites]


Willy Cook, who teaches chemical engineering at the University of New Brunswick, visited Joi's Florida lab and said he was impressed by what he saw, but "whether that substantiates the claims that they're getting a two-for-one, I can't go into that. "From what I've seen I do not believe Joi Scientific is breaking any laws of thermodynamics."

Doesn't the pretty clear subtext of this remark amount to a declaration that they probably are breaking other kinds of laws?
posted by jamjam at 12:03 PM on November 1 [1 favorite]


The CEO of NB Power is also on Joi's board of directors.

Do you know if this happened before the investment? Because if it happened after then it could have been a requirement of NB Power so that they would have more oversight over what was happening in the company.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:06 PM on November 1 [1 favorite]


I think one of the key things to remember is like doctors and nurses, engineers are science-adjacent but not actually scientists

Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.


Yes, what would engineers know about thermodynamics, or, indeed engines?

Once upon a time there was a young engineer who wrote a PhD thesis on "the form of the teeth of wheels in spur gearing" at Yale. His PhD was the first engineering PhD granted in the United States. Despite his engineering background, it is possible to believe that he knew a thing or two about thermodynamics.

Similarly, a young instrument maker and metal-worker from Scotland later did some engineering work and was noted for some scientific success. Another graduate from the Ecole Polytechnique managed to make some small contributions to thermodynamics. Another German engineer was inspired by some of the Frenchman's ideas and came up with some engine-related work. That naval engineer who made Ericsson's folly should have stayed far away from any sort of engine-related work.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:08 PM on November 1 [4 favorites]


That first link of yours is well worth reading, Comrade robot.

Here's a random sample from among many enjoyable paragraphs:
posted by jamjam at 12:22 PM on November 1


Maxwell included a chapter on Gibbs's work in the next edition of his Theory of Heat, published in 1875. He explained the usefulness of Gibbs's graphical methods in a lecture to the Chemical Society of London and even referred to it in the article on "Diagrams" that he wrote for the Encyclopædia Britannica.[34] Prospects of collaboration between him and Gibbs were cut short by Maxwell's early death in 1879, aged 48. The joke later circulated in New Haven that "only one man lived who could understand Gibbs's papers. That was Maxwell, and now he is dead."[35]
posted by jamjam at 12:23 PM on November 1 [1 favorite]


Yes, what would engineers know about thermodynamics, or, indeed engines?

There are lots of engineering disciplines that aren't even peripherally related to engines.

Besides the Engine in engineer is a railway prime mover; I doubt much if any of the modern railroad engineer's training is devoted to thermodynamics.
posted by Mitheral at 12:53 PM on November 1


Besides the Engine in engineer is a railway prime mover; I doubt much if any of the modern railroad engineer's training is devoted to thermodynamics.

The use of 'engineer' as 'railway driver' dates from 1832, long after people were first called engineers.

I am an engineer and am, in fact, teaching thermodynamics this semester.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:03 PM on November 1


I was so caught up in the magically appearing carbon atoms earlier, that I forgot about the part where this is supposed to be a very green alternative to CO2 emitting fossil fuel sources of hydrogen. What does "small amounts" of CO2 mean, I wonder? If all of the O2 ends up as CO2, you end up with half as much CO2 as H2, for example. Is that small? Because now I’d like to see a complete CO2 balance around this compared to a methane reformer, as well as an explanation of the whole energy balance bit.

I doubt much if any of the modern railroad engineer's training is devoted to thermodynamics.

I can assure you that chemical engineers like Willy Cook who is the guy cited in the article , have to learn thermodynamics. Even leaving that aside, most engineers are well aware that you can’t reach 100% efficiency, let alone 200%. A lot of design work is about trying to get closer to that 100%.
posted by scorbet at 1:12 PM on November 1


Besides the Engine in engineer is a railway prime mover; I doubt much if any of the modern railroad engineer's training is devoted to thermodynamics.

The engine in engineer is originally from the Latin, ingenium (the same root as ingenuity), and the first engine so named was a battering ram -- think of the phrase "siege engine". Tertullian describes it being used by the Carthaginians ca. 200 CE, for instance.

In some jurisdictions where anybody can call themselves engineers, I'm sure plenty of them don't understand thermodynamics. Even in jurisdictions like New Brunswick where the title actually means something, plenty of engineers may have learned thermodynamics (it's considered 'basic studies' by Engineers Canada, so everybody has to take it), but many of those have specialized in something like electrical or civil or geomatics engineering and don't use thermo day-to-day. But a dude who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and works as the director of UNB's Centre for Nuclear Energy Research damn well knows thermodynamics. Which makes the whole thing such a mystery to me.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:19 PM on November 1 [3 favorites]


Homeboy Trouble: But a dude who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and works as the director of UNB's Centre for Nuclear Energy Research damn well knows thermodynamics.

You'd think so, but occasionally:
Fake transcripts and fake credentials were enough to land a man a job at Lakeland Electric for six years until he was up for a promotion.... Investigators said he managed to work for Lakeland Electric as a turbine engineer, and then as a supervisor for six years before anyone noticed something was up.
So that guy was able to fake his credentials and nobody noticed that he wasn't actually a turbine engineer. How hard would it be to cheat your way through engineering school and get a legit license to practise, I wonder? Difficult, but surely not impossible?
posted by clawsoon at 1:33 PM on November 1


Comrade robot: Yes, what would engineers know about thermodynamics, or, indeed engines?

Your ire that engineers should know thermo is not misplaced. OTOH, I am a Chemical Engineer and the amount of real BS pseudoscience that is consumed by some of my EE and Civil and MechE friends (especially anything to do with nutrition); that would put anyone with even a passing knowledge of chemistry to shame; is mindboggling. And if you tell them otherwise; they reply with,"I am an Engineer, I know how to parse scientific papers for truth". The pseudoscience referred to here is not restricted to this one incident; methinks. So you are right; that ChE prof who signed off on this needs to be defrocked and mocked.
posted by indianbadger1 at 1:59 PM on November 1 [4 favorites]




They didn’t really need a physicist on staff though, a stack exchange account would’ve done the trick.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:15 PM on November 1 [2 favorites]


(The discussion of engineering's over-representation in crankery starts around 30 minutes in to the [previously] video I linked.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:35 PM on November 1


> Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.

Yes, what would engineers know about thermodynamics, or, indeed engines?


I mean, the observation that some engineers are experts in thermodynamics doesn't really contradict the claim that some engineers are deeply invested in (thermodynamic) pseudoscience. The fact that engineers receive training in thermodynamics and ostensibly should have some expertise in it is exactly what makes it remarkable that some engineers end up buying into pseudoscience that should be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of the subject.

This doesn't imply that all engineers are stupid or don't know thermodynamics. It just means that despite the fact that engineering is a highly technical and mathematical discipline, such that even civil engineers are required to have at least introductory coursework in thermodynamics, a sound understanding of thermodynamics (or indeed general critical thinking skills) doesn't appear to be necessary to be an accredited, practicing engineer.

This is sort of like how there's a surprising number of doctors who reject the theory of evolution by natural selection. Most(?) doctors do accept basic biology, but many don't. They ought to have enough training to know better, but clearly the type of training required to be a doctor doesn't include a thorough understanding of the most basic concept underlying all of modern physiology and anatomy. This isn't a dig at doctors' intelligence or expertise in their field, nor a negation of the many important contributions to biology and evolutionary theory by physicians. It's just a sad observation.
posted by biogeo at 6:20 PM on November 1 [5 favorites]


The physics cranks video says that the engineers usually go cranky over quantum mechanics and relativity. This makes some sense, since only a few engineering specialties require training in those subjects. The vast majority of engineers only need (and are only trained in) classical physics.

I'm guessing that doctors would only receive detailed evolutionary training if they went into immunology or cancer research...?
posted by clawsoon at 6:50 PM on November 1


Plus statements like this "Traver Kennedy, CEO of Joi Scientific, told CBC News said that "if you're only going to count the electricity, it would certainly appear" to violate those laws." make me immediately ask, what else should be being counted?

You kind of alluded to this but the byproducts.

I didn't look up any patents and gave up after two minutes on their web site, but one of the articles mentions seawater. If it is seawater and the process included as a byproduct some insoluble oxidized waste product it wouldn't be thermodynamically impossible. I mean it's still nonsense, but you'd actually need to describe the waste products to prove if violated the laws of thermodynamics.

If I were scamming someone I'd compare it to lithium + water --> hydrogen + heat (+ lithium oxide). Then I'd say my patented catalytic process had found something in seawater that could play the lithium oxide role and drive the reaction forward.

IMO the real tell for me is that they are pitching this as if it were a free lunch, which means they want their customers to be people who don't question the science, which you wouldn't do if good science was part of your process.
posted by mark k at 7:02 PM on November 1 [1 favorite]


I mean it's still nonsense, but you'd actually need to describe the waste products to prove if violated the laws of thermodynamics.


Isn’t the claim of over-unity efficiency sufficient? I have certainly never taken thermodynamics and got a shitty grade in high school chemistry but I am still aware of conservation of energy.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:28 PM on November 1


So I actually googled "electrical efficiency" earlier to see if it was a term of art, and it is, but it seems to mean exactly what everyone here thinks it means. It does indeed appear to top out at 100%.

Still I think focusing on that is more about semantics than thermodynamics. It's definitely possible to have a system where you pump one watt in and get two watts out for some finite period of time, and I figured that's what they meant by "200%"
posted by mark k at 7:52 PM on November 1


Joi Scientific CEO Traver Kennedy revealed to shareholders that Joi had been calculating power incorrectly

A lot of these perpetual motion gadgets run into this problem of measurement. They confuse apparent power with true power. The difference occurs in circuits in which there are capacitors or inductors causing AC voltage and AC current to be out of phase with each other. If you don't account for this, you will incorrectly calculate real power.

Another measurement error can occur if you assume pure sinusoidal power when the actual power has a lot of non-sinusoidal harmonic distortion due to switching in the load.

Similar errors can occur in DC portions of the circuit if the current is pulsed or rippled rather than perfect DC.

Often claims of perpetual motion machines are just measurement errors - sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional.
posted by JackFlash at 8:16 PM on November 1 [6 favorites]


They didn’t really need a physicist on staff though, a stack exchange account would’ve done the trick.

Fun fact: Michael Barnard, featured in the “warned” link in the FPP, was an IT type working for IBM when I first knew him. He was really active on Quora, and from his base on Quora started debunking anti-wind propaganda. His reputation grew from there, and look at him now!
posted by scruss at 8:54 PM on November 1 [4 favorites]


Often claims of perpetual motion machines are just measurement errors

To be fair, over the years there's been a tremendous amount of innovation in measurement errors technology.
posted by flabdablet at 12:27 AM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I mean, the observation that some engineers are experts in thermodynamics doesn't really contradict the claim that some engineers are deeply invested in (thermodynamic) pseudoscience. The fact that engineers receive training in thermodynamics and ostensibly should have some expertise in it is exactly what makes it remarkable that some engineers end up buying into pseudoscience that should be obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of the subject.

I am responding to the statement that "engineers are not scientists" and that we should presumably expect those poor benighted wrench-turners to fall for whatever quackery crosses their greasy brows. These statements are being made with blithe confidence by people who are apparently entirely ignorant of the history of thermodynamics -- who do you think historically cared about the study of engines? (And yes, in this case, engines mean 'some way of getting useful work out of a system' and not 'choo-choo').

Others have talked about Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who founded quantum chemistry and molecular biology, and his strange attachment to Vitamin C. Two chemists, one a fellow of the Royal Society, apparently decided that they had achieved the impossible despite nuclear physicists telling them that if this was true, their lab members would be quite dead. ("Have you heard the bad news about the research assistant in Pons's lab? He's in perfect health.") Should we then conclude that chemists are gullible rubes? Physicist Nikolai Fedyakin claimed the detection of a special kind of water in opposition to the laws of thermodynamics and the fact that it seemed to have the same properties as human sweat. A botanist founded an ESP lab at Duke University -- plant biologists, am I right?

I am certainly not saying that every engineer is a thermodynamicist, or that no engineer barely passed thermodynamics. I will, however, say that strange ideas are in a sense a byproduct of science. After all, in some cases, the crazy idea turns out to be right.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:50 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]


A lot of these perpetual motion gadgets run into this problem of measurement. They confuse apparent power with true power. The difference occurs in circuits in which there are capacitors or inductors causing AC voltage and AC current to be out of phase with each other. If you don't account for this, you will incorrectly calculate real power.

Another measurement error can occur if you assume pure sinusoidal power when the actual power has a lot of non-sinusoidal harmonic distortion due to switching in the load.

Similar errors can occur in DC portions of the circuit if the current is pulsed or rippled rather than perfect DC.


This is absolutely true and likely the source of many "breakthroughs" in perpetual motion. However, a physicist's first thought is not "hmm let me check your AC phase analysis and check your ripples with my voltmeter". A physicist's first thought is "this violates conservation of energy so you must have made an error somewhere", or maybe even "by Noether's theorem this would imply a violation of time translation invariance, so your claim is clearly baloney". It's about thinking in terms of the whole system to be able to tell when there's likely a mistake in the details.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:43 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]


The use of 'engineer' as 'railway driver' dates from 1832, long after people were first called engineers.

I used to work at a big machine shop where we made parts and pressure vessels for the bitumen processing plants in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Their thing was they'd take on any job, no matter how big or weird. Once they had to build these hydraulic control thingies that were milled out of giant (600 lbs) blocks of brass, and to do that they hired two guys from somewhere in England who were Engineers. But they weren't engineers as we know them in Canada - they were top-of-their-field machinists or millwrights. Their expertise was in how to take 3D plans and figure out how to invent a process to machine the blocks, and to communicate that to the machinists who actually did the work. It was fascinating to watch.
posted by sneebler at 8:34 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


@ sotonohito: Sadly, it isn't surprising to see engineers, computer techs, and doctors getting deeply invested in pseudoscience.

Let's please remember that while the majority of cranks may be engineers, techs, and doctors, the inverse is not true. In fact the vast majority of engineers, techs, and doctors are not cranks. So please do not judge the entirety of engineers, techs, and doctors by the worst of their species, and we will do you the same favor for your profession. If, as you seem to wish, we eliminated those professions, I do not think you would enjoy a society that is even more dominated by salesmen, lawyers, and politicians than already is the case today.
posted by hypnogogue at 9:14 AM on November 2


I am responding to the statement that "engineers are not scientists" and that we should presumably expect those poor benighted wrench-turners to fall for whatever quackery crosses their greasy brows.

I may be wrong, but I think you're reading more criticism into that phrase than is intended. There's nothing wrong with not being a (trained) scientist, and critical thinking skills are not the sole purview of science. Nor, as you point out, does being a scientist necessarily protect someone from falling into pseudoscience in areas outside their specialization. And of course many engineers are also scientists, particularly those doing academic research, and in my experience often do better science and engineering as a result of this dual specialization.

But "engineer's disease" is a phrase for a reason. So is "physicist's disease" for that matter. Both are different manifestations of a combination of arrogance and naivete that leads a person to apply the tools of their training in ways that are not applicable to problems outside their specialty.
posted by biogeo at 9:16 AM on November 2 [5 favorites]


Comrade_robot As the person who made the original comment, I should note that I **AM** one of those poor benighted sods I mentioned since I'm not a scientist but rather an IT worker. I'll also note that I included doctors as one of the groups that tends to fall into pseduo-scientific thinking, hardly a classiest swipe I think.

I did not say, nor imply, that all engineers (or doctors, or IT workers) went for quackery merely that there is a regrettable tendency for a rather small subset of engineers to fall for it because they mistakenly think their engineering/IT/medical/etc training gives them understanding of topics they aren't trained in and the delusion that they are scientists.

Note, for example, that most of the "scientists" who signed onto that climate change denial letter were, in fact, engineers and doctors. It's unfortunate but sadly there does seem to be a vocal minority of the people who are more hands on with technology rather than theoretical to get invested in pseudoscience. It's not all of us, or even a majority, but it is noticeable especially if, as I do, you spend much time around IT workers, doctors, or engineers. I've personally met at least five IT workers involved in pseudoscience just through the various IT jobs I've worked.
posted by sotonohito at 9:18 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


hypnogogue ??? How did you conclude I was looking to eliminate those professions? Especially since one of them (IT) is my profession?
posted by sotonohito at 9:20 AM on November 2 [1 favorite]


@sonotohito: Forgive me, I overstated your point. My bad straw man.
posted by hypnogogue at 9:21 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


Digging a little deeper. Not sure if Florida ultimately got suckered on this, but this was a thing:
Space Florida requests approval to negotiate and enter agreements with JOI Scientific for a One Million Dollar ($1,000,000) Bridge Loan to facilitate the company’s need to accelerate its staff build-up and equipment acquisition. The Bridge Loan will be structured as part of a Five Million Dollar ($5,000,000) capital raise, with terms payable on defined milestones, or convertible at Space Florida’s option. Interest will accrue at eight percent (8%) through the term of the Loan. Conversion, if selected would occur at a twenty percent (20%) discount from previous round pricing.
The board of Space Florida unanimously approved the organization to negotiate and "to negotiate and enter agreements with JOI Scientific for a $1 million bridge loan."

Space Florida is "Florida’s aerospace economic development organization," and was "created through the State to strengthen Florida’s position as a global leader in aerospace research, investment, exploration, and commerce." One of the duties of Space Florida is "financing aerospace business development projects or initiatives using funds provided by the Legislature." Any support of Joi by Space Florida would seem to have been a significant oversight failure.
posted by compartment at 10:17 AM on November 2 [1 favorite]



Note, for example, that most of the "scientists" who signed onto that climate change denial letter were, in fact, engineers and doctors.


Or even less. I got the original invite to sign that petition. All you needed was a bachelor's degree in anything remotely science-adjacent.

The issue with engineers is that the job is to apply the work of scientists to benefit some or all of humanity (usually just some). Understanding how that work got done is not a requirement.
posted by ocschwar at 8:15 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


New Brunswick: just oligarchical ratfucking all the way down.
posted by bibliotropic at 1:09 AM on November 3


I've only spent one day in St. John, and it is such a beautiful city, but the Irving-everything signage did make me wonder..
posted by ocschwar at 5:50 AM on November 3


Saint John is in New Brunswick, St. John's is in Newfoundland. l haven't spent a lot of time in that part of the world but I like what I have seen. Fredericton is pretty great too.
posted by hearthpig at 6:16 AM on November 3


I have had close encounters with a number of companies promising impossible things, and it is indeed distressing that when people become invested - emotionally or actually - in such enterprises it is often impossible to talk them out of it. No proof is good enough.

The two I followed most closely were Steorn, an Irish company that was flogging an over-unity electricity generating device, and xG, a Florida outfit that had a radio data system with a claimed 3 million factor higher efficiency than WiFi.

Both companies put on the usual series of failed or misleading demonstrations, both had fanatical inominally independent followers, both wouldn't reveal how they did it. Steorn used coils and magnets; xG published some theoretical background stuff that didn't make sense - and couldn't, because their claimed system violated Shannon's Limit for how much information you can carry in a specified channel. In information theory, this is roughly analogous to the speed of light; it cannot be broken and it is rigorously bound to the physics of the universe.

Steorn got its money from Irish farmers. Irish farmers have a lot of money and don't trust banks, but they did like Steorn for quite a long time. In the end, though, the company spent all the money, tried a couple of unrelated products and gave up.

xG is more interesting. It never got its magic radio stuff going but did get a number of contracts for radio and telephone networks. These have never achieved anything other than normal performance, but that seems to have been good enough for the customers, which include the military (another good place to go fishing with this sort of bait, alas). I absolutely know the core claims of the company to be unachievable and I absolutely believe that it is impossible for any radio engineer not to know this. (Phil Karn provides a masterly deconstruction.)

I'm a journalist. I covered both companies from their inception, Steorn because it took out a full-page ad in the Economist and I couldn't believe their flagrancy, and xG because before any of the tech stuff had been revealed it flew me out to Florida for a demo and a mini-conference. In both cases, of course, I didn't get any answers to the obvious questions and I wrote that up, pointing out how closely the claims matched classic pseudoscience and how easy it would be for either company to dispel such suspicions with the simplest of independent tests.

This didn't seem to affect the investors' appetite at all.

The one thing you have to do to make this work is not let anyone see behind the curtain. Not only does this leave your fans with a place to put their beliefs, it also makes it very hard to prove fraud. As noted above, with this style of endeavour it is very hard to know whether the impossible thing is genuinely believed by the developers or whether they know it's a fake from day one - or at some point later. In the end, it's caveat emptor.

As a journalist, it's very difficult to say that something is fraudulent without very good proof, because you can be sued - a point that the xG CEO was curiously keen to make sure I understood, as was his making it very clear how well he knew and appreciated UK libel laws. So one doesn't like to say all one's suspicions in print. One can merely state what one knows.

I did get one outfit closed down, pretty well before it started, because it made the mistake of being too specific. This was in the days when new data compression schemes were hot news, and a professor at one UK university had set up a company offering 'guaranteed' compression. This is impossible, of course, because you can't continually recompress something to zero (and it's also related to Shannon), so I read the press release and asked for the technical details. These were sent - and it was effectively run length encoding with a bit of sugar on top. I called up the prof, said "This is RLE, isn't it?", He said "Oh, er, yes. Well, that's not going to work, is it?" and that was that. Didn't even bother to write the story - but would have, had he persisted.
posted by Devonian at 9:54 AM on November 3 [9 favorites]


This is impossible, of course, because you can't continually recompress something to zero

Standing joke around the Microcomputer Club of Melbourne after Zip first appeared was the idea of running it repeatedly over its own output until you could fit your novel on a DIP switch.

Oddly enough, nobody ever got that to work.
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 AM on November 3 [2 favorites]


...how can it be, in 2019, that there are people in consequential decision-making roles who are so utterly detached from physical reality...

They had a beautiful precedent: Theranos (2003-2018).
posted by cenoxo at 9:18 AM on November 4 [2 favorites]


WP — The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019). HBO's full documentary about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes is on YouTube (with English audio and Spanish subtitles). U Can't Touch This! (lyrics and video link) plays over the closing credits.
posted by cenoxo at 1:26 PM on November 4


Theranos at least wasn't violating a basic principle of the universe that everybody should have learned about by high school. The stuff that Theranos was touting is, in principle, possible.

For example, there are many blood glucose test strips which give accurate results with 0.3 microliter blood samples, as a result of lots of money poured into research over a few decades by profitable blood glucose testing companies. The problem with Theranos wasn't basic physics violations but rather over-ambition: They wanted to get those 0.3 microliter-type results for hundreds of different blood tests within a few years. It's possible that a few decades from now we'll be 90% of the way to achieving what Theranos was trying.

What unites Theranos and Joi is fraud, but checking Joi's fraud was much easier (contradicts laws of the universe!) than checking Theranos' fraud.
posted by clawsoon at 3:44 PM on November 4 [4 favorites]


@ clawsoon: What unites Theranos and Joi is fraud, but checking Joi's fraud was much easier (contradicts laws of the universe!) than checking Theranos' fraud.

The thing that surprises me is how they were able to hoodwink FDA for that long. When you are actually offering services through Walgreen's etc., shit should have been checked out better long before commercialization.

I still have not watched the documentary. I want to read the book first. Hopefully the book does a good job explaining that part.
posted by indianbadger1 at 10:24 AM on November 5


I kind of mentioned this above but knowing you can't do something in seawater that produces hydrogen + energy is not high school science. There are all sorts of ways to get hydrogen and heat from water as long as there is "other stuff."

People who are picturing this as (2*H2O --> 2*H2 + O2 + energy) are correct that this is high school level impossible, but knowing why (H2O + ? --> H2 + ?-O + energy) is implausible in a mess of seawater is not. To be sure, I think everyone's instincts pegging this as fraud and/or extreme incompetence is sound, but I think it's going off some other markers as well as the science. (Like, for example, Joi not bothering to even fake an actual thermodynamically plausible reaction.)

The thing that surprises me is how they were able to hoodwink FDA for that long. When you are actually offering services through Walgreen's etc., shit should have been checked out better long before commercialization.

I'm on the pharma side of the FDA's mandate, but as I understand if you just ignore the FDA on services it can take a while for them to run through the enforcement escalation. I'm not aware of the FDA inspecting anything at Theranos and giving them a pass.

For comparison, 23andMe similarly ignored the FDA. While not fraud they were making medical claims without FDA valid levels of business and that part of their business was eventually changed--but not right away.
posted by mark k at 9:50 PM on November 5 [1 favorite]


knowing why (H2O + ? --> H2 + ?-O + energy) is implausible in a mess of seawater is not

To anybody who bothers thinking it through, the fact that bushfires are a thing and seafires are not is a pretty large clue.
posted by flabdablet at 11:44 PM on November 5


Energy is conserved to all experiments and purposes here on Earth, but on a larger scale of space and time, in General Relativity,
Energy Is Not Conserved

I’ve been meaning to link to this post at the arXiv blog, which is a great source of quirky and interesting new papers. In this case they are pointing to a speculative but interesting paper by Martin Perl and Holger Mueller, which suggests an experimental search for gradients in dark energy by way of atom interferometry.

But I’m unable to get past this part of the blog post:
The notion of dark energy is peculiar, even by cosmological standards.

Cosmologists have foisted the idea upon us to explain the apparent accelerating expansion of the Universe. They say that this acceleration is caused by energy that fills space at a density of 10-10 joules per cubic metre.

What’s strange about this idea is that as space expands, so too does the amount of energy. If you’ve spotted the flaw in this argument, you’re not alone. Forgetting the law of conservation of energy is no small oversight.
I like to think that, if I were not a professional cosmologist, I would still find it hard to believe that hundreds of cosmologists around the world have latched on to an idea that violates a bedrock principle of physics, simply because they “forgot” it. If the idea of dark energy were in conflict with some other much more fundamental principle, I suspect the theory would be a lot less popular.

But many people have just this reaction. It’s clear that cosmologists have not done a very good job of spreading the word about something that’s been well-understood since at least the 1920’s: energy is not conserved in general relativity. (With caveats to be explained below.)

The point is pretty simple: back when you thought energy was conserved, there was a reason why you thought that, namely time-translation invariance. A fancy way of saying “the background on which particles and forces evolve, as well as the dynamical rules governing their motions, are fixed, not changing with time.” But in general relativity that’s simply no longer true. Einstein tells us that space and time are dynamical, and in particular that they can evolve with time. When the space through which particles move is changing, the total energy of those particles is not conserved.

It’s not that all hell has broken loose; it’s just that we’re considering a more general context than was necessary under Newtonian rules. There is still a single important equation, which is indeed often called “energy-momentum conservation.”
...
The details aren’t important, but the meaning of this equation is straightforward enough: energy and momentum evolve in a precisely specified way in response to the behavior of spacetime around them. If that spacetime is standing completely still, the total energy is constant; if it’s evolving, the energy changes in a completely unambiguous way.

In the case of dark energy, that evolution is pretty simple: the density of vacuum energy in empty space is absolute constant, even as the volume of a region of space (comoving along with galaxies and other particles) grows as the universe expands. So the total energy, density times volume, goes up.

This bothers some people, but it’s nothing newfangled that has been pushed in our face by the idea of dark energy. It’s just as true for “radiation” — particles like photons that move at or near the speed of light. The thing about photons is that they redshift, losing energy as space expands. If we keep track of a certain fixed number of photons, the number stays constant while the energy per photon decreases, so the total energy decreases. A decrease in energy is just as much a “violation of energy conservation” as an increase in energy, but it doesn’t seem to bother people as much. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how bothersome it is, of course — it’s a crystal-clear prediction of general relativity.

And one that has been experimentally verified! The success of Big Bang Nucleosynthesis depends on the fact that we understand how fast the universe was expanding in the first three minutes, which in turn depends on how fast the energy density is changing. And that energy density is almost all radiation, so the fact that energy is not conserved in an expanding universe is absolutely central to getting the predictions of primordial nucleosynthesis correct. (Some of us have even explored the very tight constraints on other possibilities.)

Having said all that, it would be irresponsible of me not to mention that plenty of experts in cosmology or GR would not put it in these terms. We all agree on the science; there are just divergent views on what words to attach to the science. In particular, a lot of folks would want to say “energy is conserved in general relativity, it’s just that you have to include the energy of the gravitational field along with the energy of matter and radiation and so on.” Which seems pretty sensible at face value.

There’s nothing incorrect about that way of thinking about it; it’s a choice that one can make or not, as long as you’re clear on what your definitions are. I personally think it’s better to forget about the so-called “energy of the gravitational field” and just admit that energy is not conserved, for two reasons.

First, unlike with ordinary matter fields, there is no such thing as the density of gravitational energy. The thing you would like to define as the energy associated with the curvature of spacetime is not uniquely defined at every point in space. So the best you can rigorously do is define the energy of the whole universe all at once, rather than talking about the energy of each separate piece. (You can sometimes talk approximately about the energy of different pieces, by imagining that they are isolated from the rest of the universe.) Even if you can define such a quantity, it’s much less useful than the notion of energy we have for matter fields.

The second reason is that the entire point of this exercise is to explain what’s going on in GR to people who aren’t familiar with the mathematical details of the theory. All of the experts agree on what’s happening; this is an issue of translation, not of physics. And in my experience, saying “there’s energy in the gravitational field, but it’s negative, so it exactly cancels the energy you think is being gained in the matter fields” does not actually increase anyone’s understanding — it just quiets them down. Whereas if you say “in general relativity spacetime can give energy to matter, or absorb it from matter, so that the total energy simply isn’t conserved,” they might be surprised but I think most people do actually gain some understanding thereby.

Energy isn’t conserved; it changes because spacetime does. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
posted by jamjam at 12:54 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]


Well, the Universe was created, which you can't do in physics. So at singularities, things break down. I don't understand the virtual photons that arise through quantum vacuum fluctuations and seem to sorta-exist like quasi-particles sorta-exist: physicists talk of 'book-keeping' and 'borrowing energy', and at that point I just have to trust them. It took me long enough to work out why entanglement can't lead to superluminal information transfer. For all intents and purposes, conservation of energy is an absolute component of our quotidian physics, and if you've found a way to break it on your kitchen table then well done, show me the proof.

As for fraud - there's a spectrum of interacting expectations and regulatory environments. You can make a space with dimensions of truth/belief/lies, competency/incompetency, bona fides/fraud and fit Theranos, Joi, Boeing, 23AndMe, Steorn, xG and pretty well any other organisation in there. The law and the regulators should set out where in that space is lawful, where piratical, but in practice the boundaries are fuzzy and 'law and regulators' has to inhabit the same space and mutually interact with other organisations there.

It'd be quite fun to train an AI to explore that space. I wonder if an AI can commit libel?
posted by Devonian at 4:21 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I've always been a bit dubious about potential energy. It's a nice bookkeeping trick for moving energy around in time while still being able to say that it's conserved at any instant, but the more I've thought about it the more convinced I've become that that's all it is. Negative gravitational energy strikes me as belonging to the same general class of idea. If there are less contrived ways of keeping track of where any given lump of energy will end up under any given set of conditions, I'm all for them.

That said: given that our local region of spacetime is so minimally curved that it took until the early 20th century for anybody to need to bother working out that it was curved at all, conservation of energy is a good enough first approximation that any claim of 200% over-unity ought to be dismissed instantly as quackery and fraud, unless and until reliable persons skilled in the art of uncovering quackery and fraud have given it a thorough going-over.
posted by flabdablet at 4:40 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I've always been a bit dubious about potential energy. It's a nice bookkeeping trick for moving energy around in time while still being able to say that it's conserved at any instant, but the more I've thought about it the more convinced I've become that that's all it is.

Well it has been a long time since school, but iirc it is connected to work......if you push a boulder up a hill, the work you did against gravity becomes potential energy. That makes it seem a bit more real, perhaps. But that kind of consideration does not seem to account for all cases. Suppose there are boulders already at the top of the hill, and also, that there is a hill in the first place because the softer land around it eroded away. No one and no thing "pushed" those other boulders to the top, but they have the same potential energy w/r/t gravity.
posted by thelonius at 5:13 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


To anybody who bothers thinking it through, the fact that bushfires are a thing and seafires are not is a pretty large clue.

The underlying assumption here is that any thermodynamically feasible transformation can and will happen spontaneously. It's definitely something that some students think but it's not true (fortunately for life on this planet.)
posted by mark k at 6:54 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Seafire.
posted by Devonian at 3:42 PM on November 6


The underlying assumption here is that any thermodynamically feasible transformation can and will happen spontaneously.

No, only that in a complex natural environment, instances of any self-sustaining thermodynamically feasible transformation will occasionally have been triggered somewhere, with or without human intervention; as opposed to there being no evidence that any given proposed transformation has ever happened anywhere under any conditions, with or without human intervention, in the entire history of ever.

it's not true

Would love to learn of counterexamples.
posted by flabdablet at 9:20 PM on November 6


Quantum tunneling, in which subatomic particles rather routinely pass through potential energy barriers they never have the kinetic energy to surmount, turns out to be important in chemical reactions as well:
Tunneling Control of Chemical Reactions: The Third Reactivity Paradigm

This Perspective describes the emergence of tunneling control as a new reactivity paradigm in chemistry. The term denotes a tunneling reaction that passes through a high but narrow potential energy barrier, leading to formation of a product that would be disfavored if the reaction proceeded by passage over kinetic barriers rather than through them. This reactivity paradigm should be considered along with thermodynamic and kinetic control as a factor that can determine which of two or more possible products is likely to be the one obtained. Tunneling control is a concept that can provide a deep and detailed understanding of a variety of reactions that undergo facile (and possibly unrecognized) tunneling.
So chemical reactions that are thermodynamically favorable, but prevented from taking place by high potential barriers, can and do take place even though the reactants never have the kinetic energy required to surmount the potential barriers.
posted by jamjam at 1:27 PM on November 7


Energy is not conserved
Whelp, mindblownturtleneckguy.gif

Although tbh I believed energy was conserved, always, because that’s what I was taught and understood it to be borne out by all of the technology we have developed and rely on. As it operates in the world. Not because of time translation invariance, which is a neat sounding string of words that means absolutely nothing to me.

That conservation of energy doesn’t hold in all circumstances under relativity, and that this has been understood since long before I was taught those laws, is sort of a jarring thing to learn...
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:29 PM on November 8


This backgrounder from Michael Weiss and John Baez takes some of the sting out of it. The lede:
Is Energy Conserved in General Relativity?

In special cases, yes. In general, it depends on what you mean by "energy", and what you mean by "conserved".
Conditions that apply on or near this or any other planet fall squarely within one of the special cases in which both those words have properly unambiguous referents. So Joi doesn't get an out from Einstein, though you can be sure there will be people very keen to push the idea that they do.
posted by flabdablet at 3:53 AM on November 9


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